Small Wars Journal

Tell Me Why We're There?

Tell Me Why We're There? Enduring Interests in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) - Nathaniel C. Fick, David Kilcullen, John A. Nagl and Vikram J. Singh, Center for a New American Security Policy Brief

In 2009, the Obama administration will attempt to deliver on campaign promises to change the Afghan war's trajectory. In April, the Strasbourg NATO summit will determine the alliance's role in shaping the future of the country and the region. By the fall, Afghans will have voted for their president for only the second time since 2001, an event which may irrevocably set the country's course. By the end of this summer's fighting season, the war in Afghanistan will not yet be won, but it could well be lost.

After seven years and the deaths of more than a thousand American and coalition troops, there is still no consensus on whether the future of Afghanistan matters to the United States and Europe, or on what can realistically be achieved there. Afghanistan does matter. A stable Afghanistan is necessary to defeat Al Qaeda and to further stability in South and Central Asia. Understanding the war in Afghanistan, maintaining domestic and international support for it, and prosecuting it well requires three things: a clear articulation of U.S. interests in Afghanistan, a concise definition of what the coalition seeks to achieve there, and a detailed strategy to guide the effort.

U.S. interests in Afghanistan may be summarized as "two no's": there must be no sanctuary for terrorists with global reach in Afghanistan, and there must be no broader regional meltdown. Securing these objectives requires helping the Afghans to build a sustainable system of governance that can adequately ensure security for the Afghan people—the "yes" upon which a successful exit strategy depends.

Tell Me Why We're There? Enduring Interests in Afghanistan (and Pakistan)


Ken White

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 5:41pm

Some interesting points from a bunch of smart guys...

However, I believe they start with some dangerous assumptions and then go downhill.

<blockquote>"A stable Afghanistan is necessary to defeat Al Qaeda and to further stability in South and Central Asia."</blockquote>The South and Central Asia point is valid of course but I wonder if they really believe we or anyone can 'defeat' Al Qaeda. I think that's in the 'too hard' and the unnecessary box. All that's necessary and probably possible is that they be neutered and deterred. Maybe it's just a choice of words problem.

<blockquote>"U.S. interests in Afghanistan may be summarized as "two nos": there must be no sanctuary for terrorists with global reach in Afghanistan, and there must be no broader regional meltdown."</blockquote>If denied Afghanistan, won't they just operate from other (dispersed?) locations? Given the Region, its history and probable future, one is unsure what a further meltdown might mean. In short, it seems that these certainly desirable states may possess a degree of overoptimistic thinking. That can lead to the establishment of an impossible or excessively costly (in the eyes of the varied billpayers) goal...

An allied thought: Is it possible that we are attacking the symptoms and the surface wound and not the problem?

<blockquote>"American neglect of Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet defeat contributed to Al Qaeda entrenching there."</blockquote>Possibly true though unprovable and broadly immaterial; the following statement:<blockquote>"The United States and Europe cannot again allow Al Qaeda or its associated movements to have the open support and protection of a state."</blockquote>is telling and would seem to imply that the US and Europe have far more power than they actually possess. Again, overly optimistic thinking and, yes, idealism, can lead to the creation of improbable goals.

. . .

The goals stated in the Paper are clear, cogently stated and almost unarguable in their desirability:<blockquote>"In Afghanistan and Pakistan, its main priority must be not only to create, resource, and implement a strategic vision, but also to explain its importance to Americans frustrated with protracted war and massive spending at a time of great domestic need. A clear and realistic focus on core, enduring interests is essential, and long overdue."</blockquote>

The Paper may not itself focused on core enduring and essential interests; on interests, it is, to be sure but core and enduring are quite arguable.

More importantly, what that statement of goals does not address, is whether the paternalistic approach advocated will be accepted and adopted by either Afghans or -- and most particularly -- Pakistanis and it provides no suggestions that I saw to further the probability of such acceptance. The Paper posits 5 to 10 years of western 'help' to achieve these goals. Perhaps that is achievable, the goal within the time, however it appears to me that an effort to reshape several Centuries of practice in a period of 15 to 20 years total is not likely to succeed.

There appear to be two problems with the effort the Paper suggests. One is the patience factor of the US polity and Congress -- neither notable for great things in that regard -- and more telling, it seems yet again that some in the West offer a 'plan' that the real stakeholders may not see as something they want; our egos lead us to believe everyone wants what we want. Amazingly, often they do not -- or they want similar things but definitely attuned to the locale and often not achieved in a different manner than the west would prefer.

We have a bad tendency to do that sort of thing. It rarely works...


Fri, 01/23/2009 - 4:12pm

I don't think there's anything particularly new or revelatory here, but it's stuff that needed saying. (And really the sort of broad vision that I was calling for in the Mansoor thread.) A bit more specificity would have been helpful, I think, though is is just a "policy <i>brief</i>."